In the aftermath of the E2 nightclub disaster that killed 21 people in 2003, the city of Chicago vowed to step up weekend inspections of clubs.
Ten years later, city data released to the Tribune, as well as interviews with club owners and others, indicate that the promise was kept and that clubs are doing a better job of staying within city code. Friction between club owners and the city has decreased.
But the Tribune also found that the number of inspections has dropped in recent years and that despite the city's heightened commitment to nightclub safety, a 2-decade-old city ordinance requiring venues to do in-house inspections of their exit ways is not being enforced.
The ordinance says every venue that can accommodate at least 300 people must appoint an employee "safety warden" who surveys the establishment weekly for problems that include "obstruction of stairwells, corridors and exits." The warden must keep a ledger that the Fire Department and Buildings Department can view at any time and must file forms with the Fire Department three times a year affirming that the weekly reviews take place.
The city does not enforce the 20-year-old ordinance, and it's not clear whether it ever has, according to a Buildings Department spokesman.
Those killed at the E2 nightclub on Feb. 17, 2003, were fleeing pepper spray released during a fight, but the incident had something in common with fatal crowd crushes at concerts and sports events around the world, and even the nightclub fire that killed more than 230 last month in Brazil: a frenzied crowd trapped in a small space with few ways out.
Problems that contribute to those scenarios — blocked stairways, locked exit doors and missing occupancy placards and exit signs — are spotted by Fire Department inspectors far less these days than they were in 2003, according to the city data.
Over the past decade, weekend inspectors from the city's Fire Prevention Bureau have visited hundreds of nightclubs, music festivals and taverns per year. Thirty-two inspections from 2003 through 2012 resulted in venues being shut down for the night because of overcrowding, the data show. Other problems led to warnings or citations; some were corrected on the spot by operators.
Problem findings dropped sharply soon after the inspection program began. In 2003, the program's first year, roughly half of inspector visits found a new or uncorrected problem. But one year later, in 2004, inspectors were finding problems in about a quarter of their visits, and in the ensuing years that proportion dropped below 10 percent, a Tribune analysis of the data found.
Many clubs that received several warnings in the early years of the program have had no problems since.
"Everybody understood that 'We need to comply,'" said Deputy Commissioner for Fire Prevention Richard Ford II, who thanked the Police, Buildings and Law departments and the liquor commission for their help with the program.
Paul Natkin, executive director of the Chicago Music Commission, an advocacy group for the music community, said that when the weekend inspection program first launched, club owners reported that they were being cited for problems that had been overlooked in the past.
"I don't hear any of that stuff anymore," he said. "I don't know if there's a best practice for any of this stuff, but it seems to me that maybe they've found it."
The frequency of inspections also decreased over the past decade. From 2003 through 2005, inspectors averaged more than 2,000 visits per year. Since then they have averaged fewer than 1,500 a year.
The higher frequency in the early years included many follow-up visits to ensure that the higher number of problems found in those years were corrected. Ford said an elevated number of unscheduled inspections, prompted by nervous patrons calling 311 or 911 in the wake of the E2 deaths, also may have contributed.
"The knee-jerk reaction was having a lot of fire marshals and teams come out every single weekend," said Art Bryan, longtime owner of The Redhead Piano Bar on the Near North Side. "I think it did get across the idea that this is important, and now they've gotten into a rhythm where they're coming around every once and a while."
The number of clubs shut down for the night because of overcrowding each year dropped from nine in 2003 to zero in 2006, then jumped back up to five in 2012.
Just after midnight on Sunday, fire inspectors shut down a party at the 22thirty9 event space on South Michigan Avenue, only a block from where E2 once operated, after someone called 911 to report overcrowding, fire officials said. The task force found more than twice as many people in the space as its capacity allowed. The club's event manager declined to comment to the Tribune.
Another party at a Pilsen community center was shut down a few minutes later after police found a blocked stairwell and exposed wiring, officials said. Tickets were issued at both locations.
Investigators examining the E2 deaths found that the nightclub at 2347 S. Michigan Ave. was packed with more than 1,000 people in the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 2003, three times the number the club could safely accommodate, according to one expert.
Some E2 patrons reported that one or more of the club's exit doors were locked. Fire officials later said that was not the case. In any event, patrons were either unaware of or unable to access the club's back exits, which were supposed to be clearly marked. Instead patrons rushed into the narrow front stairwell, public safety officials said, where some were crushed to death.
The city's Fire Prevention Bureau is responsible for inspecting a wide range of commercial and residential buildings and includes 79 inspector positions. That number is down from what it was at the time of the E2 deaths, but the Fire Department said the decrease is related to changes in the scope of the bureau's responsibility and that weekend nightclub inspections have not been affected.
Ford said that except on nights like New Year's Eve, when the Fire Department adds extra inspectors, there is no additional cost to the weekend inspection program because weekend shifts already are a regular part of Fire Department operations.
The city's Buildings Department also inspects venues and checks for exit violations as defined by city code. Those inspections occur during weekday business hours when nightclubs are closed.
Before 2003, the Fire Department also scheduled many of its checks for crowding and exit violations during weekdays, when clubs were empty. The weekend inspection program began less than a month after the E2 deaths.
But the city has not enforced its ordinance requiring weekly internal inspections of exits, even though it has been on the books for 20 years.
Ford, who took a look at the ordinance after being asked about it by the Tribune, said he did not believe it would measurably improve compliance with city codes.
"It's sort of like you're asking a venue to self-police itself, which is not the best possible way to do anything," he said. "And now you have a mountain of paper that means absolutely nothing."
It's not uncommon for public agencies to require internal inspections between annual government checks. That's how the state monitors carnival rides and ski lifts, for example.
Owners of some nightclubs and other venues say they voluntarily do internal inspections anyway, like Farid Nobahar, general manager at Alhambra Palace, a restaurant and event space in West Town.
"The management team we have is trained; we have all the exit doors and make sure they're unlocked. It's really important," he said. "We have an in-house mechanic who goes around to make sure."
Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, called the ordinance "a useful idea (that) could simply be modified to make it workable and enforced."
He said the city could eliminate the burden of paperwork filed three times a year but maintain the requirement that venues keep ledgers of their weekly inspections that could be viewed by city inspectors during their annual visits. "There's no need to ship (forms) down to City Hall," he said.
The ordinance was approved by the City Council in 1993. Former longtime Ald. Bernard Stone, who introduced it, could not recall the ordinance specifically but said he worked closely with the Fire Prevention Bureau.
"I might have been advised by fire prevention that it might have been a good cautionary thing to introduce," Stone said.
When it came to enforcement, he said, "I don't know what happened."